double bill at the 17th Annual Noir City Film Festival focused on "British marital noir." Now there's an interesting theme! The two films shown were THE SLEEPING TIGER (1954) and THE HIDDEN ROOM (1949); the latter film was also known as OBSESSION in the UK.
The evening started off with THE HIDDEN ROOM, about a seriously demented man, Dr. Clive Riordan (Robert Newton). Dr. Riordan plots to punish his flirtatious wife Storm (Sally Gray, GREEN FOR DANGER) by imprisoning her latest paramour, an American named Bill (Phil Brown, later Uncle Owen of STAR WARS) -- then eventually, when Dr. Riordan is sure he's not a suspect in Bill's disappearance, he'll kill Bill and dissolve his body in a bathtub he's slowly filling with an acid solution.
I had something of a love-hate relationship with this film. I found the overall plotline distasteful, with many scenes of Dr. Riordan tormenting the chained Bill regarding his planned fate during his months-long imprisonment. It's a grim, creepy tale, to say the least.
A tense scene where the doctor plans to test the acid bath by killing his wife's cute little dog, Monty, and dissolving him in the acid was almost a bridge too far for me. I was feeling a bit pained at that point about my decision to attend the movie. (Spoiler alert! Stop reading here if you don't want to know Monty's fate. Fellow animal lovers, never fear, all will be OK, and Monty plays a key role in the ultimate resolution.)
And then, British movie magic happened. Who walks into the doctor's office one day but Scotland Yard Inspector Finsbury, played by Naunton Wayne -- one half of the famous team of Charters and Caldicott in Hitchcock's THE LADY VANISHES over a decade earlier.
Inspector Finsbury has for some reason been assigned to investigate the disappearance of Mrs. Riordan's dog, a seemingly odd assignment for a Scotland Yard superintendent, which puts Dr. Riordan on high alert. The rest of the movie is scene after scene of delicious sparring between the inspector and the doctor, as the inspector slowly pulls on the threads that unravel the case, which hinges on the tiniest things -- white dog hairs on a coat, an electrical cord seemingly leading nowhere, and the doctor's unexpected use of the Americanism "Thanks, Pal!"
When Wayne's inspector walked into the room, all my tension dissolved and I began to really enjoy the movie. It's a bit like the relief provided by John Williams' appearance as the detective in Hitchcock's DIAL M FOR MURDER (1954) a few years later, where the audience suddenly feels that everything will be all right in this hands of this capable man.
Brown does well maintaining a stiff upper lip by joking about his predicament, and Newton is suitably creepy. (Did Newton ever play nice guys? He's so effective as a villain!) Gray is glamorous as the wife, although her scenes are comparatively limited.
Edward Dmytryk, who at the time was briefly exiled in Europe. The script of this 96-minute film was by Alec Koppel based on his own novel.
THE HIDDEN ROOM was shown last night in a beautiful 35mm print. The movie is available on DVD from public domain company Sinister Cinema or via streaming on Amazon.